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Back to Reviews 97

    painting in london: through thick and thin

by David Cohen  

Howard Hodgkin
D.H. in Hollywood
from "Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1975-1995"
   Somewhat pompously, Sir Howard Hodgkin is fond of remarking that, as a painter, he feels like a member of "an endangered species." His retrospective, which had been at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and in Fort Worth, Tex., concluded its tour at London's Hayward Gallery this winter. As a confirmed fan of Hodgkin's I have to confess that this show did him no good. It was stuffed with his big pictures, painted either for his dealers or his ego but incompatible in essence with his intimist vision, and it was abysmally installed at the Hayward. Amazingly, David Sylvester, the doyen of British critics, took credit for the hang, which looked like it was done over the telephone.

Hodgkin was followed at that venue by a sprawling -- and for this viewer, yawn-inducing -- survey of appropriation sculpture of the 1980s and 1990s (45 artists, including the likes of Richard Hamilton, Richard Wentworth and Damien Hirst), which seemed to fulfill Sir Howard's worst Last of the Mohicans fantasy. But painting is endangered only if we constrict our attention to a narrow band of the museum world, and even then it's pretty tendentious. Not only are there plenty of creditable painters of Hodgkin's own generation still hard at it, but painting is also enjoying a high with young "cutting edge" artists. In fact, a wholesome, cross-generational crop of painting shows in the first quarter of this year refutes Sir Howard's self-aggrandizing posture.

Frank Auerbach
Mornington Place
In the work of two elder statesmen of British painting, passion and energy find a corollary in awesomely heavy impasto, as if laying it on thick is some kind of token of commitment. The actual paint almost becomes a sculptural object in the work of both Frank Auerbach (b. 1931), who showed new paintings and drawings at Marlborough, and Gillian Ayres (b. 1930), who was given a retrospective which emphasized recent work at the Royal Academy. Auerbach is one of the heros of the School of London, who perseveres with his own kind of gritty observation. But actually he concedes nothing in the beefiness of his form or color to the nominally abstract Ayres. Both pummel improbable heaps of pigment about their canvases. Both overwhelm and disconcert with the sheer machismo of their enterprise.

With Auerbach, this has to do with the mythology of how his works come about. The effort that goes into each "hard won image" of his -- which he scrapes down after each unsuccesful attempt to capture an authentic take on his subject, whether a long-suffering sitter or urban landscape -- is the stuff of legend. A portrait usually requires a 100 or so sittings, with the artist scraping down each failure before the next attempt. And yet the finished work bodies forth as an expressive explosion, with little indication of the ghosts of former efforts underneath. There is nothing lugubrious about his color -- in contrast to Leon Kossoff, whose mode of operation is very similar to Auerbach's. In fact, the new pictures are almost impressionistic in their paint treatment and sensitivity to color nuance, with no let-off in the violent action within the paint. These new paintings are among his best so far, and stand comparison with the best by their nearest exemplars, Jack Yeats and Soutine.

Ayres machismo has to do with the sheer scale of her canvases in relation to their impasto, and the "unfeminine" robustness of handling. Of course, we are in dangerous territory when we start using essentialist, gendered characterizations in relation to painting traits. But it seems justified in relation to Ayres because she so coquettishly plays with and against gendered expectations. Her floral themes and brash, saccherine colors -- pinks and oranges and bright blues brought into clanging collisions -- tease received prejudices about decoration. Her pictures are at once butch and girly.

Therese Oulton
Blind Eye
Actually there are a number of male abstract painters of Ayres' generation -- Hodgkin, John Hoyland and Patrick Heron spring to mind -- whose palette and forms juxtapose the strident and the fey in similar fashion. But let's not spoil the argument, or the connection with another painter who staged an impressive show recently, Therese Oulton (b. 1953).

Oulton was a pupil of Ayres and she exhibits at Marlborough, the same gallery as Auerbach. Impasto is also an issue in her style, but it is not the bravura expressionist impasto of these older painters; on the contrary, it is so meticulously achieved -- and conceived -- as almost to be a conceptualist device. Oulton creates an all-over decorative painterly continuum with minutely observed, fidgety little marks that stand proud of the picture surface. Sometimes these build up, across the canvas, into an almost serial caterpillar motif; earlier in her career, these now-trademark patterns looked in isolation like the ruff around the neck of a Dutch burgher, but now they have more the quality of snake skin.

Earlier Oulton paintings intimated strange landscapes in the romantic swirl of their gestalt, and as the colors looked to be straight out of Constable, she was heralded as a neo-romantic. But she resented this label, and started to move into hermetically sealed and belligerently illegible forms. She is still more interested in finding pictorial means to suggest phenomenological processes, and in folding these back into her own painterly language, than she is in representing nature as such, but has started to readmit the sort of richly ambiguous forms that enliven her work with metaphoric possibilities. The best works can still have a landscape element -- albeit inadvertently, as in one picture which actually recalls a Chinese scroll in the way under-hanging cloud forms and what could be banks of reed punctuate the delectable monotony of an allover sea of browny gold caterpillar motifs.
Delectable monotony is the defining principle in the monochrome canvases of Zebedee Jones (b. 1970) who showed recently at Waddington Galleries. Typical of many abstract painters of a generation dominated by neo-conceptualism, he shares the nonchalant, stand-offish, cool attitudes of his peers working in appropriation, video or installation. This is art about art, to be sure, clever and able to stand back from itself in critical aloofness. Waddington also shows Fiona Rae, with whom Jones shares an affection for fashionable colors -- the vibrant industrial pastels that dominate graphic design and retro clothing alike -- and Ian Davenport, with whom he shares a radically reductive picture-making strategy. But Jones actually seems closer to Oulton than to his contemporaries, for all these tell-tale signs of generational commonality. He has found a way to paint unexpressively and with exacting reserve and yet to allow just enough of a possibility of meaning or representation to tease the attention of the viewer.

His canvases are stretched over frames over six inches deep; because of the paired-down quality of what's on the surfaces, the sides are brought into play. Paint is scraped along meticulously, usually on the horizontal, with some sort of ultra fine comb or industrial brush by the looks of it. The effect is like Richter drag abstractions but without the color. But the paint forms a scum at the edges, like the styling gel that accumulates at the edge of your fingers if you've ever greased your hair. The drag is never quite perfect, allowing for varying degrees of surface incident: the eye senses lesions in the top layer with intimations of layers underneath.

In the sparser compositions, these breaks can read like some sort of musical notation; other times, however fanciful, they can look like clusters of trees. On some of the smaller squares the dance of the brush (although I don't think this is what it is; the marks are surely accidents in a colder process than anything suggested by the word "brushstroke") are Rymanesque in their business. To my eye, I must confess, his paintings are actually more satisfying than Ryman's. Jones has found a slick way of achieving what Kant calls "purposiveness without purpose," whereas Ryman is too purposively purposeless. Incidentally, Jones has declined to have his works reproduced on the Internet, which in view of his minimalism is quite understandable. The reader will have to rely on my powers of ekphrasis, which is fine by me.

Patrick Caulfield
Happy Hour
On the surface, Patrick Caulfield (b. 1936), also at Waddington, could not be a more different painter than Frank Auerbach -- surface being the operative word. Deadpan flatness, pictorial closure and precisionism are the hallmarks of this control freak. His images are as hard-won as Auerbach's, but what holds production up, it would seem, is an artist lost in Apollonian effort rather than Dionysian creativity. Caulfield has dropped his trademark motif, his illustrational black outlines imposed on fields of continuous color. What he has kept, in keeping with his background as a pioneer British Pop artist, are the trompe-l'oeil delights of perspectival teases, of contrasting over-all decorative abbreviation with isolated passages of conventionalised realism, as if Richard Estes has come along and painted a detail on a Stuart Davis. I say he is Apollonian rather than Dionysian but ironically the bottle emerges as a theme in Happy Hour, 1996, a masterful still-life with cartoon liquor bottles and a "real" glass of wine vying for definable space within a whirl of receding awnings, hanging lightbulbs, reflections and shadows. The image is "tight" in every sense -- a masterful cocktail.

Chantal Joffe

Dawn Mellor
Just over the road from Caulfield's Cork Street exhibition, at the Victoria Miro Gallery, Chantal Joffe (b. 1969) and Dawn Mellor (b. 1970) staged a two-woman show. Both painters have produced small canvases of approximately 10 x 8 in. which were hung in blocks in a very stylish and effective way. Such an installation might have emphasized a throw-away quality in each artist, and each certainly ploughs the territory of "bad painting," but actually these mesmerizing little pictures warrant close attention, Joffe's more than Mellor's in the final analysis.

Mellor's images made more thematic sense in this sequential hang: she makes tight, schematic, iconic little pictures of girls doing naughty things. The color is rich, the paint thick but smoothly applied, the drawing deliberately cramped. In various pictures, Marilyn Monroe sports blond braids which do odd things; in one, for instance, a braid becomes a tail issuing from her backside in the manner of Mapplethorpe's famous bull-whip. Other film stars are depicted in equally gruesome contortions -- I'll spare you details of what Liza Minelli does with her walking cane! Katherine Hepburn has a wig gushing from her vagina. Another beauty peels her face off like a dress. Yet the cumulative effect of all this abjection, far from horrifying, seems rather fey, almost sweet, thanks probably to the disarming naivete of her painterly craft.

Joffe is far looser and seemingly spontaneous in her handling of paint. These new, small pictures are much more likeable and effective than the huge blow-ups of pornographic imagery that brought her to attention at her Royal College of Art degree show a couple of years ago. Thematically they are relatively benign, compared both to Mellor and her earlier work. They have a poignancy that belies their sloppiness and seeming nonchalence and are actually close in spirit to Elizabeth Peyton's quite remarkable paintings of rock musicians exhibited at Gavin Brown's gallery in New York recently.

Merlin James
Like Mellor and Joffe, Merlin James (b. 1961) taps nonchalance and naivity as means of paintery sophistication. And like Oulton and Jones he is crucially concerned with the problematics of paint. James, staging his first commercial show in London for several years, at Francis Graham-Dixon, is well regarded as a writer on art, although you don't need to know that to sense a fierce pictorial intelligence at work: these subtle, poetic, sometimes charming, often odd-ball pictures ooze criticality. His subjects come from the real world -- nondescript buildings in landscapes, depopulated interiors, isolated architectural details -- but are treated with sufficient perfunctoriness, drawn virtually in shorthand, as to avoid the traps of observational realism. I guess he is in similar territory to Caulfield in a way, but -- to put it bluntly -- he is not as anally retentive. Within restrained parameters he allows himself room for expressive maneouvre.

Spontaneity is genuine, but circumscribed. Subjects like an easel in the middle of an empty studio, a prosaic sub-Bauhaus suburban house, scaffolds and stairwells and revolving doorways are at one and the same time sophisticated ciphers for an art about art, and actual structures to be filled in or painted over. His mood is vaguely nostalgic, perhaps because of his nursery colors and simplified notation, perhaps because his work recalls the strategies of early modernism. Certainly he plays games with the syntax of painting: an easel is painstakingly crafted out of applied bits of found metal collaged into the paint surface, for instance. Sometimes he risks absurdity, of "painting by numbers," of being intentionally deadpan, in a sophisticated dialogue with art history. But he is never really tongue-in-cheek. Even hitting the tonal and textural extremes of murkiness or quirkiness just turn out to be ways of eliciting that enigmatic poignancy so resonant in his more even-keel compositions.

Exhibitions mentioned in this review:

"Material Culture: The Object in British Art of the 1980s and '90s" at the Hayward Gallery, Apr. 3-May 18, 1997.

"Frank Auerbach: Recent Work" at Marlborough Fine Art, Jan. 9-Feb. 15, 1997.

Gillian Ayres at the Royal Academy of Arts, Feb. 6-Mar. 2, 1997.

"Therese Oulton: Recent Painting 1995-97" at Marlborough Fine Art, Apr. 4-May 2, 1997.

"Zebedee Jones: New Paintings" at Waddington Galleries, Jan. 15-Feb. 8, 1997.

"Patrick Caulfield: New Paintings" at Waddington Galleries, Mar. 26-Apr. 26, 1997.

Chantal Joffe and Dawn Mellor at Victoria Miro Gallery, Apr. 4-May 2, 1997.

"Merlin James: Critical Pictures" at Francis Graham-Dixon Gallery, Jan. 24-Mar. 8, 1997.

DAVID COHEN is a London-based art historian and writer.